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When Love Damages: The Case of Benevolent Sexism

Elizabeth Lewis Hall

The intent of benevolent sexism is often loving, aimed at the well-being of the woman in question. The problem is that the behaviors motivated by this kind of sexism do, in fact, lead to harm.

“Mom, what should I do?” my teenage son asked me. Since I am a psychologist who studies women’s issues, my two sons have often been subjected to my thoughts about gender-related concerns that come up in the course of our daily lives. I was telling my sons about recent research on subtle forms of discrimination against women. In response, my son presented a scenario. At the Christian summer camp he attends every year, when the church bus pulls into camp the youth leader instructs the boys to take the girls’ suitcases up the long hill to the girls’ cabin before taking care of their own gear. My son was being socialized by his youth leader into how to be a loving young Christian man. But the research we were discussing was calling into question the vision for loving he was being given. What should he do?

Loving well can be complicated. Nicholas Wolterstorff tells of an eye-opening experience in South Africa. In a dialogue between Afrikaners and blacks and coloreds, the blacks and coloreds spoke of their experiences of being humiliated and demeaned, and asked for justice. In response, the Afrikaners did not argue that apartheid was just. Instead, they insisted that justice was not relevant to the discussion; that the relevant category was love, charity, benevolence. They saw their actions as being characterized by charity and by protection of the blacks and coloreds in their country, and were puzzled when the expected gratitude was not forthcoming. Wolterstorff says, “Scales fell off my eyes. What I saw, as I had never seen before, was benevolence being used as an instrument of oppression.”1

Clearly, benevolence and good intentions are not enough. Is Wolterstorff’s example of love harming the beloved a unique historical episode? Or do we all too often inflict harm in the name of love? My sense is that benevolently-inflicted suffering is a frequent occurrence. As a clinical psychologist, I have observed parents and spouses interacting with a beloved child, husband, or wife in ways motivated by love, but with damaging effects. Consider, for example, the family member who enables the alcoholic or drug addict, keeping the individual from experiencing the consequences of his or her behavior and perpetuating the addiction. Or consider the loving parent who desires to keep the child from experiencing any negative emotions, and consequently stunts the child’s ability to handle the realities of living in the real world.
“A number of recent studies have begun to document the unintended negative consequences of these kinds of interactions, leading to the conclusion that they undermine women’s independence, autonomy, and competence.”But family dysfunction is not the only context for benevolently-motivated suffering. More subtle—and more widespread—are harmful patterns of relating into which we are socialized. These patterns form the norms of our relationships and have societal supports (such as customs) built around them. Apartheid is an example of this. Patterns of interacting with economically disadvantaged people in ways that perpetuate poverty might be another. But here I’d like to focus on patterns of lovingly-inflicted harm that are even more common: those of benevolent sexism.
Benevolent sexism is a form of sexism that is experienced by the perpetrator as subjectively benevolent. In other words, the intent is often loving, aimed at the well-being of the woman in question. The problem is that the behaviors motivated by this kind of sexism do, in fact, lead to harm. So what kinds of behaviors fall into this category? Behaviors that are based on characterizations of women as needing to be protected, supported, shielded from unpleasantness, and revered might all produce this kind of harm. Examples include:
  • Swooping in to get the suitcase she is carrying when she is capable of carrying it herself.
  • Stepping in to protect her when she can actually stand up for herself.
  • Taking on the additional responsibility so she doesn’t have to concern herself.
  • Deciding not to tell her the unpleasant news so she won’t worry.
  • Making the decision for her because you know what is best for her.
  • Telling her what to do rather than letting her work out her own solutions.
Helpful, or at least benign? Unfortunately, no. A number of recent studies have begun to document the unintended negative consequences of these kinds of interactions, leading to the conclusion that they undermine women’s independence, autonomy, and competence. When experimenters expose women to benevolently sexist interactions (for example, by asking them to carry something, then having a man volunteer to do it instead, or by offering women help and guidance because they are women) a number of negative outcomes occur. Benevolent sexism produces self-doubt about competence and decreased self-esteem, lowers women’s performance on cognitive tasks, causes them to define their worth on gender-stereotypical traits rather than on their actual abilities, makes them less likely to protect themselves and to speak out against injustices, etc. In other words, benevolent sexism undermines women’s competence, fostering feelings of helplessness, and contributing to their victimization.“It’s not enough to desire good things for others, and do what is in our power to actualize those desired goods.”The call to love others is central to a life of following Christ. We all know that loving our enemies is difficult. It turns out that loving those that are not our enemies—even those that are easy to love—is also difficult. It’s not enough to desire good things for others, and do what is in our power to actualize those desired goods. We also need wisdom in discerning whether what we do for them actually will lead to good things for them.

Avoiding Benevolent Sexism

So how can we move forward in loving women well? There are no easy answers. When patterns of interaction are so embedded in social norms, it takes more than good intentions to find a way out. Look at how long it’s taking to dismantle apartheid. But there are a few things that can be done. Don’t assume you know how to love; cultivate empathy so you can discern how your well-intentioned behavior will be experienced. Question socially-sanctioned ways of “loving well.” Become more aware. Start noticing the patterns, in yourself and in others. When you catch yourself acting paternalistically, do something different. Take the time to reinforce the competence and autonomy of the women with whom you interact. Ask permission to help. Support decisions women make. Have high expectations. Ask what she would like you to do, instead of assuming. Be willing to defy social expectations. Explain why you are doing (or not doing) certain things. Don’t expect it to be easy; you are, after all, swimming upstream. And know that even if you are not loving perfectly, you are loving better. And isn’t this what life is all about: to learn to love as God loved us?